The reporting of, and response to, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech at the Evangelical Alliance yesterday is a classic example of people hearing what they want to hear.
John Bingham in the Telegraph told us that Justin made his remarks in an unlikely surrounding.
The Most Rev Justin Welby told an audience of traditional born-again Christians that they must “repent” over the way gay and lesbian people have been treated in the past and said most young people viewed Christians as no better than racists on the issue.
Archbishop Welby, who as a young priest once opposed allowing gay couples to adopt children, said the church now had to face up to what amounted to one of the most rapid changes in public attitudes ever.
While insisting that he did not regret voting against same-sex marriage in the House of Lords, he admitted that his own mind was not yet “clear” on the wider issues which he was continuing to think about.
And he admitted that, despite its strong official opposition to allowing same-sex couples to marry, the Church is still “deeply and profoundly divided” over gay marriage.
The Archbishop, who comes from the evangelical wing of the Church, which takes a more traditional interpretation of the Bible, publicly opposed the Government’s Same-sex Marriage Act while it was being debated earlier this year.
Noting the fact that it is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, he urged Christians to speak out about what they are in favour of rather than simply what they are against.
He praised the Alliance’s work tackling social problems by promoting food banks, working in social care or recruiting adopters and said that it was time for the Church to make “an alliance with the poor”.
But he went on: “One of things that I think is most noticeable where we make a bad impression in society at the moment is because we are seen as against things, and you talk to people and they say I don’t want to hear about a faith that is homophobic, that is this that that, that is the other.”
Asked later whether this meant that he regretted voting against gay marriage, he said he stood by his vote because he did not believe “rewriting the nature of marriage” was the best way to end discrimination against gay people.
He said: “The Bill was clearly, quite rightly, trying to deal with issues of homophobia in our society and … the Church has not been good at dealing with homophobia … in fact we have, at times, as God’s people, in various places, really implicitly or even explicitly supported it.
“And we have to be really, really repentant about that because it is utterly and totally wrong.”
He added: “That discussion [about gay marriage] is continuing and the Church is deeply and profoundly divided over the way forward on it.
“I am absolutely committed not to excluding people who have a different view from me, I am also absolutely committed to listening very carefully to them.
“We are not going to get anywhere by throwing brickbats at each other.”
He went on to describe the shift in public attitudes to homosexuality as one of the biggest social changes of recent history.
“I’m continuing to think and listen very carefully as to how in our society today we respond to what is the most rapid cultural change in this area that there has been, well, I don’t know if ever, but for a very long time,” he said.
“And we have seen changes in the idea about sexuality, sexual behaviour, which quite simply [mean that] we have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 think not only that what we are saying is incomprehensible but also think that we are plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism and other forms of gross and atrocious injustice.
Got all that? Right, let’s see the responses. Here’s Colin Coward.
The speech shows how carefully and deeply the Archbishop is thinking, how far he has already travelled, and where he is stuck. He spoke on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
I think his remarks yesterday might have been a seminal moment in the Church of England’s journey towards the full inclusion of LGB&T people – but we won’t know for some months or even a year or two just how significant the shift might be.
He calls for repentance, a complete reversal of traditional Christian teaching and attitudes to lesbian and gay people.
Really Colin? In his speech Justin called for “a complete reversal of traditional Christian teaching”? Gosh, I must have missed that. I heard him say that he believed in the union of one man and one woman, but I guess I must have misheard.
On the other side, Matt Kennedy at Stand Firm (who I have the greatest respect for) makes the critical error of believing that what the newspapers report is the entire substance of a speech.
“We have to be real about that, I haven’t got the answer and I‘m not going to jump one way or the other until my mind is clear about this,” he said. “I’m not going to get into the trenches on it”
There you go…the Archbishop of Canterbury who sits where Augustine and Anselm and Cranmer once sat “doesn’t want to get into the trenches” when it comes to a sin that Paul says will keep people out of the kingdom of heaven. Sad but predictable.
Well, when you listen to what the Archbishop actually had to say, he clearly in context is saying that he is not going to get into the trenches right now, because he wants to work out how to move forward. In the very same breath he affirms that he would vote “no” again on same-sex marriage if he had the opportunity – how is that caving in on the issue?
And now the analysis from yours truly as to what Justin was intending when he made the statements he did. When you actually read what the Archbishop actually said, it strikes me that he is trying to tread a careful balance between two positions. First, he nowhere capitulates on a biblical sexual morality. He’s very clear he believes marriage is between a man and a woman and that’s why he voted against the same-sex marriage bill (and indeed would vote so again). At the same time, he wants to recognise that the way that some Christians have treated gay people is nothing short of homophobic. There has to be a way to express the good things we believe in rather than being seen as always berating the bad things we disapprove of.
As to the Archbishop saying his mind is not clear, well the context of that is clearly that he is not clear yet about the way forward (rather than not clear that the Biblical moral for sex is in marriage between a man and a woman) in articulating the truth in a culture that seems to reject it. For me that’s a healthy place to be in. It means that the Archbishop wants to have a serious conversation in the Church about how it expresses the truth of the transforming Gospel in the 21st century western world. It wouldn’t surprise me though if the Archbishop waited until the women bishops issue was sorted out before he turned his hand to coming to a conclusion on the sexuality debate. So there might be a trench to jump into at some point, but at the moment Justin is working out where and how to dig it rather than entering one now.
And the bottom line my conservative friends is this. Don’t condemn Justin because he doesn’t say everything you want him to say. Condemn him if and only if he backtracks on the traditional Christian sexual moral. But frankly, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Here’s a complete transcript of the question from Andrew Brown of the Guardian and Justin Welby’s response.
Q Andrew Brown, Guardian
In the light of your comments of the duty of the church to be for things rather than against things, are you still happy that you voted against gay marriage?
A Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
Thank you Andrew, that’s really helpful, I was just so hoping not to talk about that today.
Yes I am, to be clear. What I voted against was what seemed to me to be rewriting the nature of marriage in a way that was, I have to say, within the Christian tradition, within scripture, within our understanding, is not the right way to deal with the very important issues that were attempting to be dealt with in that bill.
The bill was clearly, quite rightly, trying to deal with issues of homophobia in our society. And as I said at the time in the House of Lords, I think I said it then, but I can’t quite remember, and Andrew can probably remember better than I do. And as I said on other occasions, I think in General Synod of the Church of England, the church has not been good at dealing with homophobia, it’s one of the areas in fact, we have at times, as God’s people, in various places really implicitly, or even explicitly supported it and we have to be really, really repentant of that because it is utterly and totally wrong.
But that doesn’t mean that redefining marriage is the right way forward, I think. That discussion is continuing and the Church is deeply and profoundly divided over the way forward on it. And I am absolutely committed not to excluding people who have a different view from me and I am also absolutely committed to listening very carefully to them. We are not going to get anywhere by throwing brickbats at each other.
And I want, so yes, I would, if the same thing happened again I would vote the same way as I did then. But I am continuing to think and listen very carefully as to how in our society today we respond to what is the most rapid cultural change in this area that there has been, I don’t know if ever, but for a very long time. And we’ve seen changes in the ideas about sexuality, sexual behaviour which simply, we have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 think not only that what we’re saying is incomprehensible, but also think that we’re plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism and other forms of gross and atrocious injustice.
We have to be real about that. I haven’t got the answer and I’m not going to jump one way or the other until my mind is clear on this. I’m not going to get into the trenches on it. I don’t know, that probably doesn’t answer your question very well.
You can watch a full video of the speech plus the audio of the Q&A here.